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Fashion has a bad habit: cultural appropriation

Brands are being called out for usurping ideas from other cultures. Why can’t companies stop exploiting non-western cultures?

Gucci's floral embroidery organic linen kaftan, which looks a lot like a kurta, is available for a staggering $3,500 (about  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>2,50,000).
Gucci's floral embroidery organic linen kaftan, which looks a lot like a kurta, is available for a staggering $3,500 (about 2,50,000). (Courtesy Gucci)

Of all the fashion trends that come and go, one perhaps remains relentless: cultural incorrectness.

In less than two weeks, three such offences have been reported in different parts of the world. Italian luxury house Gucci came under fire in India for offering a floral embroidery organic linen kaftan, which looked a lot like a kurta, for a staggering $3,500 (about 2,50,000). It even inspired a slew of memes, with e-commerce site Snapdeal putting up a social media post with their version of the kurta (priced at 451) and a caption that read: “#BrandWaliQualityWaaliDeal, we weren’t lying”. Louis Vuitton was called out by Arab fashion influencers for its $705 Kaffiyeh-inspired scarf, a traditional checked-pattern head dress for Middle Eastern men. It was eventually removed from the French luxury label’s website. Nordstrom dropped the word “Palestine” from the description of a peasant style top it was selling on its website, after several people complained on social media the blouse’s embroidery was similar to that of a traditional cross-stitch technique from Palestine. The description continues to say the blouse pays tribute to the Israeli designer’s Middle Eastern roots. Industry social media watchdog Diet Prada noted that, going by the product reviews, many people believe the store shouldn’t sell the blouse, given the situation in the region.

Also read: When will global luxury brands stand up for India?

A few weeks ago, Mexico’s cultural minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero said the country would no longer allow brands to take from their culture without giving due credit.

Be it Yves Saint Laurent’s penchant for north Africa or Coco Chanel’s love of the Byzantine cultures, global fashion brands have long parachuted into countries, looking for “inspiration” and borrowing symbols of cultural importance to turn them into decorations. What’s hard to understand is that why designers are still doing it when conversations around cultural appropriation are getting louder, especially with more people from across cultures finding a voice on social media? Why can’t brands respect the fine line between appropriation and appreciation?

Both Gucci and Louis Vuitton declined to comment.

Safir Anand, one of India’s top intellectual property lawyers, offers some answers. “In the world of fashion, appropriation is often when a famous designer or fashion house in the garb of unawareness takes elements from another culture and exploits the same,” he says. “On the other hand, a culturally sensitive designer/brand acknowledges the heritage behind their designs and duly credits the culture bearer, both financially and otherwise. Thus, it is safe to say that consent, compensation and credit go a long way in cultural appreciation. While borrowing of cultures is definitely a part of the creative process, one needs to do it in an authentic way rather than dominating the cultural community. The best practice to ensure this would be to have permission before using any cultural element, be it a motif, silhouette, etc., as part of your design/collection.”

Guerrero said something similar on “due credit” in a recent interview with fashion daily WWD. She said, “Behind a garment, there’s a cultural community, and we can build a loom together.”

Listening to consumers

Among the many global voices vocal about “stealing” of designs is Marriam Mossalli, the founder of Saudi-based communications agency Niche Arabia and author of Under The Abaya. Speaking about the removal of the Louis Vuitton scarf, she says: “The consumers spoke and the brand listened. This marks one of the first times the Arab market has successfully had its voice heard.” She believes the removal now makes her more inclined to support the label. “It’s because I buy brands that share my same ethos. We can no longer separate the two.”

As of now, the Gucci Floral Embroidered Kaftan is still available on the website.

According to Mossalli, recent movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have shed a new light on cultural correctness, encouraging more people to talk about cultural missteps. “It was an inferiority complex that stopped Eastern cultures from being talking about these matters. Not today, thanks to movements, we are seeing more minorities being vocal about their exploitation into the mainstream. We are seeing these cultures want to be acknowledged.”

Indian couturier J.J. Valaya, who was among the industry professionals to comment on the Gucci “Indian Suit” on his personal Facebook page, makes it a point to acknowledge the culture his collections are inspired from. He says: “As a brand, we indulge ourselves as ‘the royal nomads’, a byline which has been synonymous with us for many decades. We travel to countries, research on civilisations and history and celebrate indigenous crafts and customs…and of course, we graciously acknowledge our inspirations.”

Appreciation is, of course, always welcome. Conversations between cultures through fashion only encourage a cross pollination and deeper understanding of global traditions. Escapism is after all at the core of fashion. “Everything new that is created will have its roots in some form of inspiration from somewhere in the past, present and future. As long as there is no plagiarism involved and due credits are given, creativity needs to be given a free rein,” says Valaya. His Lakmé India Fashion Week 2005 collection, inspired by Belgian cartoon character Tintin, is considered one of his strongest till date. While presenting the collection, he spoke of his admiration for the author Hergé in his press release and all his interviews.

Internationally, India has been a source of inspiration to many, from Alexander McQueen, Chanel to shoemaker Jimmy Choo. In its Spring Summer 2008 “Fantasies Indiennes”, Hermès presented Nehru jackets and sari gowns. Hermès has often spoken about its use of Indian artisanal techniques in collections and for this specific collection the campaign was shot in India and featured model Lakshmi Menon. This was a clear and beautiful case of appreciation.

Mossalli says there are just three easy steps that brands need to follow when they are inspired by other cultures. “Firstly, acknowledge the culture of inspiration. Then if possible, work with local artisans, hire them to do the embroidery or the weaving and/or give back to those marginalised communities.” Respect is what is being asked for and, of course, a share in the profits.

Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what they mean to us.

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and a mindful fashion advocate.

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